Even with the departure of catching prospect Francisco Mejia in last night’s late Jonathan Lucroy deal, the Cleveland Indians boasted a very talented top-ten prospects in their system. The New York Yankees seemed to think so as well, swooping in and snagging top prospect Clint Frazier and left-hander Justus Sheffield for Andrew Miller a few hours later.
While all eyes were on Brady Aiken’s much-awaited professional debut, Justus Sheffield continues to cement himself as one of the better left-handed prospects in the game.
Sheffield was the second of three first round-draft picks in the Indians’ big 2014 MLB Draft. Selected 31st overall, Sheffield joined names like Bradley Zimmer (selected 21st overall), Mike Papi (38th overall), Bobby Bradley (97th overall), and the recently-departed Greg Allen (188th overall) almost immediately on the Indians top prospect lists.
Not imposing in size, standing at just 5-foot-10 and 196 pounds, scouts liked what they saw in Sheffield’s arsenal at a young age. Some were quickly scared off by a brief velocity dip in his senior year at Tullahoma High School in Tennessee — where he pitched with his brother, and now Los Angeles Dodger, Jordan — but he still hit 95 with his fastball that final season. The Indians took the chance and signed him up before he could head to Vanderbilt with his brother.
His half season-debut went relatively well in the Arizona League as he made four starts over eight appearances. He struck out 29 and walked nine over 20.2 innings, while posting a 4.79 ERA. He also allowed 24 hits, as opposing hitters batted .286 against him.
This has been an issue for Sheffield for much of his career. His fastball, though sharp and in the mid-90s, is sometimes a bit level, lacking movement. Small in stature, he often throws with a lot of effort, limiting the control and command of the pitch, sometimes not being able to get it down. This has made him very hittable throughout his career.
Sheffield made headlines in January of 2015 when the then-18-year old got in trouble for, well, being a teenager. He was arrested in his hometown on a couple of charges, one including underage drinking. He was quickly able to put that behind him and move on, having a nice full season debut in 2015.
He went 9-4 over 26 starts in 2015 in the Midwest League, lowering his ERA to 3.31. He seemed to hone in on his command, striking out 138 and walking 38 over 127.2 innings of work, an impressive 2.68 walks per nine for a 19-year old. He again was hittable, allowing 135 hits on an unlucky .344 BABIP, but was able to strand 70 percent of his runners.
This season has seen Sheffield attempt to expand his arsenal, and he’s struggled a bit in doing so. He has seen a rise in his walk rate and a dip in his strikeout rate, but this is more so from transitioning from a straight two-pitch starter to one with a four-pitch arsenal. Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs recently noted that he is using his slider more this season. It sits in the mid-80s right now and seems to have enough bite in it that if he continues to work on it, it will be a nice out pitch for him. His changeup also hits in the mid-80s and he is seeing more consistency with that. His fastball and curve were always his most reliable pitches, but the curve seems to have taken a step back as he works on his other secondary offerings.
That being said, heading into Sunday’s action, in which he was scheduled to start for the Indians but has now changed, Sheffield sat at 7-5 with a 3.59 ERA over 19 starts. He’s struck out 93 and walked 40 over 95.1 innings, having walked three batters in four of his last seven outings. Again, the command has been a bit erratic, and while it could be an issue, it is more than likely from his attempt at growing into a more well-rounded pitcher.
For more on Sheffield’s promising future in New York, head on over to Today’s Knuckleball for my full feature by clicking on the link below: